JERUSALEM — It may appear peripheral to a G-8 summit agenda already crowded with the challenges of Africa and climate change, but don’t be surprised if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fast-tracked into the spotlight as leaders converge tomorrow in Scotland.
Far beneath the radar dominated by Bob Geldof’s international pop crusade, former World Bank president James Wolfensohn has been navigating diplomatic back channels to get G-8 backing to expand Israel’s imminent pullout from the Gaza Strip into a new partnership with Palestinians.
And unlike Geldof, Wolfensohn will have the undivided attention of G-8 leaders on Thursday, where he is expected to deliver an urgent call for as much as $3 billion (U.S.) to rebuild the Palestinian economy on the heels of the Israeli withdrawal. The project, if approved, could as much as double international aid over the next three years.
Wolfensohn, as special envoy to the Mideast representing the “Quartet” (the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations), framed the issue of Palestinian economic recovery as a crucial step toward resolving the conflict, when he testified last week to the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee.
“If ever there was a time in the self-interest of the world to try and put this right, it is my judgment that it is now,” Wolfensohn told the Senate hearing.
“And that’s where we have to try and convince the wealthy countries and the Arab nations that now is the time to do it, because if you don’t, we’re going to have a constant problem in the area.”
Wolfensohn listed six issues that would “make or break” the disengagement process, including smooth and functioning border crossings between Gaza and Israel and Gaza and Egypt and the free flow of goods and people between Gaza and the West Bank.
A Palestinian economic recovery will also require the reconstruction of Gaza’s airport and the construction of a seaport, all with direct access to third countries, he said.
Wolfensohn told the Senate committee the Gaza withdrawal will also require the international community to invest in rapid-impact economic programs that deliver real-time improvements on the ground.
“Disengagement needs to be accompanied by an immediate, demonstrable change in living conditions if it is to resonate with the Palestinian people,” he said. “A sharp increase in job opportunities would provide this sense of change and hope.”
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, as host of the G-8 summit, has taken up Wolfensohn’s call and is lobbying leaders to commit to the plan.
“I hope, but I can’t yet be sure, that there will be a specific initiative on the Israeli Palestinian issue,” Blair told a news conference.
“I’ve set aside time within the summit now to do this because there have been developments over the past few days that lead me to believe we may be able to make some progress.”
British diplomats have quietly been keeping Israel informed on the back-channel negotiations, an Israeli official said last night.
“From our perspective, we support the international efforts to help Palestinians. We want disengagement to go smoothly. We want the Palestinians to have positive benefits occurring as a result of our redeployment,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.
“Our only red line is security. Our ability to be forthcoming on issues like border crossings all depends on Israeli security. If we see Palestinian movement on that, we can move ahead more quickly that anyone expects.”
Among the many complications of disengagement is the issue of security along the so-called Philadelphi Corridor, a 14-kilometre border zone between Gaza and Egypt. The wartorn wasteland has long been a smuggler’s paradise through which guns and ammunition have passed through tunnels into the hands of Palestinian militants.
Israeli and Egyptian officials said yesterday the two sides have agreed in principle on the deployment of as many as 750 Egyptian soldiers to assume the anti-smuggling efforts of departing Israeli troops.
Palestinians remain guarded on the prospects of a new wave of international aid.
“Palestinians are not asking for charity but justice,” said Arjan el-Fassed, a founder of the Electronic Intifada.
Michael Tarazi, a Palestinian legal affairs adviser, said a G-8 package will “be very welcome. But it will still be a real tragedy if the G-8 thinks the occupation is going to end just by throwing money at it.
“As long as Israeli settlements are expanding in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the world is not addressing the whole picture. Three billion dollars sounds impressive. But is that money going to help end Israel’s hold over the rest of the territories or just make it more comfortable?”